Mile High Thunder: Oklahoma Thunder - Denver Nuggets 1st Round Playoff Preview
By Elliot Grossman
There is a reason George Karl was hoping for a first-round matchup with the Dallas Mavericks. The way that Thunder have been playing lately and considering their matchup with an injury-plagued Nuggets team, it would take a miracle for the Denver Nuggets to pull off a first round upset.
The Nuggets have really surprised teams with their performance following the Carmelo Anthony trade. Since the All-Star break, the Nuggets have posted an 18-7 record while with "star" Carmelo Anthony they posted a less imprevissive record of 33-24. Their stength is in their depth and athleticism where they have a quality backup player or two at every position and arguably the strongest bench in the entire league when healthy.
Nuggets’ Coach George Karl loves having two extremely quick and unselfish UNC bull-dog point guards in Ray Felton and Ty Lawson (who are virtually interchangeable and mirror each other’s game) to orchestrate the Nuggets fast-break offense. In the month of March the Nuggets went 10-3 while both Ray Felton and Ty Lawson averaged over seven assists per game. Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler were great acquisitions as it gave the Nuggets much needed youth, versatility, offense and athleticism. A pleasant surprise was the play of Aaron Affalo who has had a breakout year turning into an extremely efficient playeron both ends of the court. Affalo, who was once seen as a defensive specialist whose offense was limited to three-point shooting, is averaging career highs in field goal and free throw percentage, as well as points, assists and rebounds per game. Savy veteran Kenyon Martin has played and started in all but one game for the Nuggets since the All-Star break, an unexpected feat given he is playing on microrofractured knees. His presence on both ends of the court gives the team a certain intimidation factor and swagger. Once Melo was out of the picture Nene emerged as the team’s leader. During the month of March, Nene averaged roughly 15 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game.
There is no doubt that the Nuggets have been maximizing their utility. However, as we have learned from the Mavericks over the past four seasons, too much depth and lack of a strong, consistent 8-man or 9-man fundamental rotations leads to early exit in the playoffs. The Nuggets have really struggled with injuries of late, and as result their rotation has been inconsistent. With Danilo Gallinari, Aaron Affalo, Nene Hilario and Chris Anderson all dealing with recent injuries, and will likely not be 100 percent going into the playoffs it's hard for the team to know what to expect from them. As result of these injuries the Nuggets’ rotation has also varied greatly as of late; consequently the team may struggle playing together at the outset of the playoffs. The starting rotation is not even set in stone because of injuries. While Lawson, Nene (if healthy) and K-Mart will all likely start, the wing positions may vary, as they have this season. Will it be Affalo with Gallinari? Or Chandler with Gallinari? Or maybe Affalo with Chandler? I am not completely sure, but my guess is Gallinari will come off the bench, if he is even healthy enough to play in the playoffs with his sprained right ankle. The Nuggets are extremely hobbled right now, as Aaron Affalo, Nene, Timofey Mozgov, and Danilo Gallinari sat out the final game of the season for injury reasons (and Ray Felton sat out the final game of the season as well to get some much deserved rest). While the Nuggets are extremely athletic, the Oklahoma City Thunder are equally (if not more) athletic. The Thunder are also much more healthy and have way more of a consistent rotation than the Nuggets. Not to mention, the Nuggets are 1-3 vs. the Thunder on the season and 0-3 vs. Thunder without Carmelo Anthony playing (two of the Nugget’s seven post All-Star break loses coming against the Thunder).
Another team that has been maximizing their utility as of late is the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder were riding a five-game winning streak before losing the final game of the season in overtime to the Bucks. This was a game that was meant to rest the starters, as starting rotation averaged less than 23 minutes per starter in the game, and BJ Mullens played over 29 minutes to be second on the time in minutes played vs. the Bucks. Overlooking that game, the Thunder are red hot heading into the playoffs; especially when considering their record of 14-2 in the month of March. There is no doubt anymore that they got the better end of the Kendrick Perkins trade. Jeff Green was a tweener who needed the ball in his hands to be effective and detracted from his teammates.
Two Thunder Sophomore players, Serge Ibaka and James Harden, have really emerged as a result of the removal of Jeff Green. In the month of March James Harden offensive game was extremely efficient; he averaged 16.8 points a game, while shooting 49.4% from the field and got to the foul strip nearly 5 times a game while converting from line at around 86%, despite coming off the bench. Had Harden produced these numbers consistently during the whole season, he might have been in contention for the sixth man of the year award. Harden gives the Thunder a high quality scorer of the bench. Even more impressive was the emergence of Serge Ibaka, who took the over starting Power Forward position following the Jeff Green trade. During the month of March Ibaka averaged 11.9 points per game, 9.2 rebounds per game and a ridiculous 3.4 blocks per game. Ibaka gives the Thunder major defense and athleticism at the power forward position. And the very best part of the Kendrick Perkins trade was none other than Kendrick Perkins.
His presence alone has been a game changer for the Thunder. Perkins brings size, strength, defense, intimidation and most of all an infections mentality of going hard in the paint (which inspires his teammates to do the same).
The Thunder are also extremely athletic and deep. Ibaka, Westbrook, and Durant represent some of the NBA’s most athletic players at each of their respective position. They can keep up and run with any team. They have two superstars in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who can fill up the stat sheet with ease. Kevin Durant is the NBA’s back-to-back scoring title champion and one league’s most versatile scoring threats. Russell Westbrook is arguably the best all-around point guard in the league (size, strength, athleticism, defense, unselfishness, leadership and scoring). His physical attributes and skills usually give opposing point guards fits and I expect him to frustrate both Felton and Lawson. Not to mention the Thunder also have depth and great role players and a way more consistent rotation than the Nuggets. Nick Collison is a fundamentally sound big body who can rebound well. Thabo Sefolosha is one of the league’s best defenders and rebounders from the shooting guard position. Daequan Cook is a quality shooter. Eric Maynor is a big backup point guard who plays under control. Nazr Mohammed is nice big man with strength, size, hardness and veteran leadership to help backup Kendrick Perkins at the center position. This team was assembled really well for the playoffs and is primed to make a championship run.
Nuggets’ X-Factor: Nene Hilario
Nene injured his groin against the Golden State Warriors, on the Nuggets second to last home game of the season. This is cause for concern, because the Nuggets are going to need him to anchor this team if they have any sort of chance of contending. He needs to win the battle with Kendrick Perkins and assert his dominance to inspire his team to play their very best. He will likely be a free agent in the off-season and if he is smart, he will give it his all in hopes of earning a near max contract from some desperate team willing to pay the big bucks. If he goes all out and plays his very best for the entire series, then the Nuggets will have an outside chance of pulling off the upset.
Thunder’s X-Factor: Russell Westrbook
If Russell Westbrook can shut down Ray Felton and Ty Lawson, this series will be over quickly. He has the size advantage over both and can really minimize their shooting and scoring ability. If he plays his normal stingy defense and is able to aggravate Felton and Lawson, I can’t see the Thunder losing.
The Oklahoma City Thunder will be a legit contender for an NBA championship this year and can take on any team in this league. Oklahoma City also has an underrated defense to help compliment their high-powered offense. They are 7th in the league rebounds per game, 3rd in the league in blocks per game and 6th in the league in steals per game. The only thing holding them back is their youth and lack of playoff experience, but that is why the added two hard-nosed veteran centers with championship rings at the trade deadline (Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed). The Nuggets also suffer from being young and experienced and though they have a few players from their 2009 western conference finals team, this is completely different squad that is just as, if not more, inexperienced as the current Oklahoma City Thunder.
Thunder win it in 5, 4-1.
Sunday April 17, 8:30pm Nuggets at Thunder
Wednesday April 20, 7:00pm Nuggets at Thunde
Saturday April 23, 9:00pm Thunder at Denver
Monday April 25, 9:30pm Thunder at Denver
Wednesday April 27, TBD* Nuggets at Thunder
Friday April 29, TBD* Thunder at Denver
Sunday May 1, TBD* Nuggets at Thunder
All Times CST